Three months into 2015, I’m still playing catch-up with many of the werewolf films that came out last year, but failed to make it out to my neck of the woods. (I’m not exaggerating much when I say it pains me to think that the last one I saw in a theater was 2012’s Underworld: Awakening.) Today’s selection is the simply titled Wolves, which seems to promise a back-to-basics tale, but that’s not what it delivers. Written and directed by David Hayter — whose screenwriting CV is larded with the likes of the first two X-Men movies, the Mummy Returns spinoff The Scorpion King, and Watchmen — Wolves is a werewolf film with a comic-book sensibility that just so happens to have not been based on one.
It all begins, naturally enough, at the beginning, which is narrated by lycanthroprotagonist Cayden Richards (Lucas Till), a high-school football star plagued by nightmares (“the first sign that something was wrong with me,” he says), splitting headaches, and some not-so-typical raging hormones. These cause him to go apeshit on the field (the player whose head he caves in totally deserved it, though), nearly attack his girlfriend in a car (she gets away before he’s able to fully transform), and come to at his house only to find his parents brutally murdered. This forces Cayden to hit the road, much like Bruce Banner did at the end of every episode of The Incredible Hulk, and it’s while he’s drifting from place to place that he learns he was adopted, which explains why his parents didn’t warn him he was going to turn into a bloodthirsty beast and kill them. (How inconsiderate!)
Not long after he hightails it, Cayden kills two rapist bikers at a truck stop and, having commandeered one of their rides, makes the acquaintance of a real character named Wild Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson) while drowning his sorrows in a bar that apparently hasn’t heard of the concept of carding. Once the one-eyed Wild Joe flashes his canines at Cayden, the boy pumps him for information about their kind and gets directed to the small town of Lupine Ridge, which wasn’t named after the flower, if you catch my drift. Once there, Cayden makes a beeline for another watering hole, which seems to be patronized by the entire town, and makes an immediate impression on its owner, Angelina (Merritt Patterson), or Angel for short because of course. He also gets the attention of town heavy Connor (Jason Momoa), who he later finds out is the leader of a pack of near-feral wolfmen who live up in the hills. First, though, farmer John Tollerman (Stephen McHattie) hires Cayden on as an oft-shirtless farmhand and eventually gives him the skinny on his parentage and Connor’s designs on Angel, which are less than honorable.
With the brisk running time (the film comes in at about 85 minutes without credits) and so much mythology to unpack (to be a “pure-born wolf” means one descends from “one of the old lines,” the hybrids that are created by being bitten don’t have the same powers of healing and transformation), it was wise of Hayter to limit the number of major characters. Of course, this means there are some Lupine Ridge residents that are under-served, like John’s rock-steady wife Clara (Janet-Laine Green) and Angel’s sloppy-drunk sister Gail (Melanie Scrofano). Which is a shame because they’re a lot more interesting and get better dialogue than Cayden, who’s quick with a smart-ass remark, but when he’s given the chance to confront his biological father, the best he can muster is the PSA-worthy “You did this to me. You made me the monster I am.” Considering how much better their werewolf makeup is than anybody else’s, I wouldn’t be complaining.